The centenary of Pius IX's death has drawn attention again to the
pope of the longest pontificate in history: the pope who lived through
the exile in Gaeta and the Roman Republic of 1848, the proclamation of
the Immaculate Conception and of Papal Infallibility, the celebration of
the first Vatican Council and the end of the temporal power of the
It has been said of Pius IX that he was at once the most loved and
the most hated of all popes: the most dissimilar judgments have been
passed on his multiform activity during the thirty-two years of his
reign. Allow us to recall here a secondary but characteristic aspect of
this astonishing figure. Pius IX partly owed his immense popularity to
his joviality, his witticisms, and the art he possessed of grasping the
comic aspect of a person or of a situation. Pius IX was a pope full of
In the very first months of his pontificate, in 1846, he had to deal
with a curious problem. A deputation came to ask him—as temporal head
of the Papal State—for authorization to offer a crown of laurel to a
Miss Esler, a ballerina who was famous at that time. "There is
nothing in that", the pontiff observed, "against the honour of
the Church or the safety of the State. But if I were you I would offer,
rather than a crown, a pair of sandals, since you intend to reward her
feet and not her head!"
After the troops of General Oudinot, in 1849, had liberated Rome from
the short-lived Mazzinian republic and had enabled the Pope to return,
it was the French army that for nearly twenty years ensured order. From
1856 to 1862 it was commanded by a curious character, General de Goyon,
whom a Belgian diplomat, Baron de Beyens, described as "the man who
has most amused the Romans since Caracalla". At the end of his
mission, the General went to take leave of Pius IX and sadly, but not
without a certain pride, showed to him the letter of his minister.
"I have just been called to Paris, called and not
recalled, as Your Holiness can see!"
"Certainly, General," Pius IX replied, "but I am very
much afraid that you will find the 're' again in Paris!"
There were not just French troops in Rome at that time. The Pope,
too, had his army, and in 1866 the commanding officer of the papal
Zouaves was a rather stout Swiss, Colonel Allet. One day, among the
Lenten preachers, a Jesuit named Alet was presented to Pius IX.
"You have the same name as my Colonel", the Pope observed.
"Yes, Your Holiness, but with one 'l'...
"Oh! it's true, my Colonel has two ailes (= wings, same
pronunciation as the letter 'l'), but I assure you that he would
have great difficulty in flying in spite of that!"...
Pius IX followed the Catholic movement in France with great interest
and he was in touch with its main representatives. Louis Veuillot, who
was converted in Rome during a first stay in 1838, returned in 1853.
"You have not been in Rome since my Pontificate?" Pius IX
asked him on receiving him. "No, Holy Father", the impetuous
publicist replied, "otherwise you would have seen me already! I
came to Rome for the first time fifteen years ago to be converted".
"Ah yes, you came for baptism, and now you come for
After baptism and confirmation, marriage: that of Frédéric Ozanam
supplied him with the subject for an unexpected witticism. One day he
was speaking to Father Lacordaire, who seemed rather to deplore the
event than to rejoice at it. "My friend Ozanam", the Dominican
said, "has fallen into the trap of marriage!"
"What", the pontiff answered; "do you mean to say that
Our Lord established six sacraments and a trap?"
Furthermore, Louis Veuillot narrates in one of his letters how one
day he had to present to Pius IX the Superior General of the Sulpicians,
Monsieur Carrière. The Pope, after expressing to the venerable
ecclesiastic his joy at receiving him, invited him to sit down. But the
chair indicated was covered with newspapers. The embarrassed visitor
made a vague gesture to clear it. "Pooh!" The Pontiff said,
"they are revolutionary papers, you can sit on them!"
Among the French personalities with whom Pius IX was in
correspondence was the Comte de Chambord, who had taken refuge in
Frohsdorf in Austria, in the eventually fruitless expectation of one day
ascending the throne of his fathers. It seemed possible for a moment in
France, immediately after the unhappy war of 1870, that this dream would
come true, on condition, however, that the Pretender would accept the
tricolour. Pius IX pointed out with common sense that good things could
be done with the tricolour, since he had returned to Rome with it after
the 1848 revolution. But nothing could convince the Comte de Chambord to
renounce his white flag, and, consequently, his throne. Pius IX was not
particularly astonished, and, wit that he was, drew the conclusion of
the adventure with a quip that is just in his style: "And all
that", he exclaimed, "all that for a napkin!"
His excursions in Rome sometimes gave Pius IX the opportunity for
picturesque meetings. The story is told of a poor fishmonger whom the
authorities had just forbidden to sell his goods in the open air. The
Pope's carriage passes, The man rushes up: "Holy Father, I'm
ruined!" He tells his story in tears. Pius IX pulls him to his
feet: "Bring me something to write on". The good man had no
paper except that with which he wrapped up his fish. He handed a sheet
to the pontiff, who writes in his own hand this rescript of a new kind:
"Let him fry his fish where he likes, when he likes, and as much as
he likes! Pius IX".
Another time it is an old gendarme who throws himself at the Pope's
feet during his drive walk in Villa Borghese.
"Holy Father, I've been in the service for twenty-five years,
and they refuse to let me retire!" The pontiff replies, "Look
at the way of the world. It is just the opposite that happens to me. I
have not yet been in service for twenty-five years, and they want to
pension me off at all costs!"
The trials and disappointments that accumulated in the course of the
years did not succeed in destroying the Pope's good humour. In the last
years he had also to cope with physical pain: his legs were less and
less able to carry him. One day there arrived from France for an
audience a noble woman with a pompous way of speaking. She wished at all
costs to make the head of the Church accept some sumptuous gift.
"Do you want my mansion in Paris? My castle in Dauphiné? My
jewels?... Speak, Holy Father, speak. I will not get up until you have
told me what I can offer you".
"Get up, my daughter, get up, you would run the risk of
remaining on your knees until doomsday. What I would like, you cannot
give me: I would need a pair of new legs!"
It was so true that a rather painful operation was necessary. But
even then the aging pontiff did not lose his sense of humour. At the end
of the operation, the surgeon, Costantini, ventured to ask his august
patient if he had suffered. "If I suffered? You made me see more
stars at midday than Father Sacchi (1) shows at midnight!"
The anxieties that the evolution of political events caused Pius IX
affected him even more, it can be imagined, than his personal
infirmities. To a prelate who was trying to reassure him by reminding
him of the divine promises regarding Peter's boat, be replied:
"Certainly, the boat is secure from shipwreck; but that will not
prevent those who are in the boat from getting a good mouthful if they
do not look out for themselves and if Providence does not come to their
He could not endure the delays of the first Vatican Council in
defining papal infallibility. He is said to have remarked one day:
"If these bishops do not hurry up, they will have to be fed on
potatoes!" In fact, the maintenance of the Council Fathers for
months and months ended up by seriously depleting the pontifical
finances. "They are afraid of declaring the pope infallible,"
Pius IX said, laughing, "but they are not afraid of making him go
Some months later, it was the temporal power of the popes that went
bankrupt. But in this hour, the most tragic one in his existence, while
the cannons thundered and the Piedmontese troops were penetrating into
Rome by the breach of Porta Pia, what was Pius IX doing? The Minister
Andreotti recounted it recently in a charming book. It is hardly
credible; Pius IX was composing a charade!! (cf. Giulio Andreotti: La
Sciarada di Papa Mastai).
On 20 September 1870 the last act of a long tragedy had been reached.
Pius IX, in the playful tone that was his wont, summed it up as follows
in an audience to Italian Catholic youth in 1874. Commenting on the text
of St John: "your sadness will change into joy",
he said: "Let us hope that, as the joy of the beginning of this
pontificate changed into sadness, so its end will change into joy!"
And he recalled his memories: "When, on 17 June 1846, the seclusion
of the conclave came to an end to enable many people to get a closer
view of the new Pope, everything was joy and merriment. Some members of
the diplomatic Corps had hastened to penetrate into the Quirinal chapel,
and one of the most eager to approach the Pope was the minister of the
King of Sardinia. The Pope, clad in the pontifical vestments, was
preparing to present himself to the people from the balcony. The
minister of the King of Sardinia anxiously seized the train of
the pontifical vestment, happy to be the first to be able to render the
new Pope a service. This exterior act of cordial understanding between
the Holy See and Piedmont was followed by an exchange of affectionate
letters which more officially confirmed the harmony. So far, joy and
friendship. Later everything became sad. Piedmont took from me the whole
robe of temporal powers, and on 20 September 1870 it penetrated
into Rome, this time not to carry, but to take away by violence, the train
which still remained of the robe that had been torn off. And that
was how joy changed to sadness!"
Pius IX has been reproached for having let himself be carried away by
his wit to pass rather cutting judgments on some persons—particularly
those in his entourage—without bothering too much about the dignity
with which they might be clad. It is quite certain that the defects of
the persons with whom he was familiar could not escape his perspicacious
eye. The case is often quoted of a prelate of modest intelligence, whom
Pius IX, in the course of a drive in the Roman Countryside, met riding a
donkey. "Look!" he exclaimed, "Mons. X has achieved a
In the same way he had for a long time among his privy chamberlains a
German nobleman of the Hohenlohe family. Of him he liked to say that,
though he had three aitches in his name, he was not worth one.
("Not to be worth an 'h'" [non valere un'acca] is an
Italian expression which means not to be worth a straw). Having become a
cardinal and having withdrawn to his castle in Schillingsfürst,
Hohenlohe, after the events of 1870, had taken it into his head to
attract the Pope there, and he spoke highly of its charms. On the letter
that contained the strange invitation, Pius IX was content to write:
More amusing, but too long to tell, would be the adventures of
Cardinal d'Andrea, a fiery Neapolitan, rather too fond of the "new
ideas" and of Prince Humbert of Savoy. He had suddenly left Rome
for Naples without troubling beforehand to ask for the Pontiff's
authorization. After useless recalls to order and a series of adventures
which ended up by tiring the patience of Pius IX, the latter had to
bring himself to deprive the recalcitrant cardinal of the purple and
depose him from his episcopal see of Sabina. "Poor d'Andrea",
he said to those around him, "he is crazy three days a week. If
only one knew which!..." It is only just to add that the rebellious
cardinal yielded in the end and died forgiven and rehabilitated.
Such was Pius IX: a heart of gold and a devilish wit. One may
wonder whether, giving free rein in this way to his tongue—or his pen—this
holy man always succeeded in keeping within the limits authorized by
Christian charity. A thorny problem, the answer to which it is better,
perhaps, to leave to the Sacred Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
The beatification cause of Pius IX is, in fact, before it. If in the
course of the trial, the "devil's advocate", as he is called,
were to find himself short of arguments, he could perhaps find quite a
rich subject to exploit by sifting in a severe spirit of criticism the
innumerable flashes of wit that faithfully accompanied this great pope
throughout the vicissitudes, sad or joyful, of the thirty-two years of
1) Father Sacchi was a Jesuit Astronomer, then famous throughout